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Tag: megan gould violin

Mighty, Epic Individualist Fabian Almazan Plays the Jazz Gallery This Friday Night

As a composer and pianist, Fabian Almazan has no fear of epic grandeur, big statements or rich melodicism. He doesn’t limit himself to acoustic piano, or to traditional postbop tunesmithing either. As a bandleader, he hasn’t been as ubiquitous lately as he was a couple of years ago when he released his mighty Alcanza Suite, which is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s back out in front of his own trio this Friday night, March 1 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

While there’s no telling which direction Almazan is going to go in next – he’s done everything from reinventing Shostakovich string quartets in a jazz context, to playing in starry space-jazz band Bryan & the Aardvarks – the Alcanza Suite is his magnum opus so far. There’s never been anything quite like it, a towering, symphonic masterpiece that draws equally on jazz and neoromanticism while tackling many sobering themes, from the trials facing immigrants to the bright of existentialism. The ensemble here rise to the many demands on their technique, a string quartet of Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello bolstered by Camila Meza on guitar and vocals, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums alongside the bandleader.

Meza sings calmly amidst the sudden gusts of the opening number, Vida Absurda y Bella (Absurd and Beautiful Life), Almazan’s piano a frenzy of climbs and spirals in tandem with Cole’s pummeling attack. Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous seems to be a reference point.

The second movement, Marea Baja (Low Tide) is a thoughtful nocturne, Meza’s tender vocal over wary strings, Almazan picking up the pace with his circling rivulets. As Meza moves further back in the mix, she grows more forceful. From there, Almazan’s carnivalesque chromatics enter and then give way to a big, hypnotically insistent crescendo.

Verla (Seeing It, “It”) being truth, begins as a tone poem and then becomes a moody, austere string quartet piece: this particular truth seems hard to bear. Almazan follows it with a brief solo piano passage that shifts from gentle lustre to disquiet; later on, Oh and Cole also get to contribute unaccompanied solos.

Meza returns to the mic for Mas, a fervent hope for better circumstances over airy, distantly blues-tinged atmospherics that builds toward towering angst with Almazan’s chromatic cascades.

Oh pounces and bubbles within the vast, catchy riffage of Tribu T9, Meza’s vocalese adding calm contrast to Almazan’s energetic two-handed polyrhythms. 

Rising from somber belltones to emphatically spaced minimalist gravitas, Oh’s solo introduces the sixth movement, Cazador Antiguo (Ancient Hunter). Its stern, mechanical, martial drive and creepy helicopter effects juxtapose with Meza’s resolutely sailing vocals, segueing into Pater Familias. A coming-of-age narrative without words, it’s a return to the bright/shadowy dynamic between Meza and the rest of the band. Almazan cuts loose with his most gorgeously glittery solo of the entire record before a grim march returns, then gives way to a jubilant Meza coda.

Este Lugar (This Place) is the suite’s most epic segment, a lush, dynamically shifting maze of counterpoint, Meza giving voice to immigrant hopes and crushing realities: the return to the relentless march theme packs a wallop. Marea Alta (High Tide) is the suite’s towering coda, Meza’s guitar chords finally punching through the symphonic, polyrhythmic web. Whether you consider this classical music, minimalism or jazz, or all of the above, this album is pretty much unrivalled, in terms of both towering majesty and social relevance, over the last couple of years,.

Raw, Smoldering Middle Eastern Rock from Mild Mannered Rebel

In the summer of 2008, oud virtuoso Mavrothi Kontanis released two brilliant debut albums. The first was a mix of stark classics from the Greek rembetiko underground of the the 1920s and 30s. The second, Wooden Heart, was originals influenced by the music of that era, with a similar restlessness and unease. Kontanis’ new album Ear to the Sky, with his band Mild Mannered Rebel, includes more of those plaintive, intense acoustic songs, but also psychedelic rock featuring Kontanis on – take a deep breath – guitars, bouzouki, baglama and tambouro lute. The band is playing the album release show at Drom on April 26 at 9:30; tix are only $10 and still available as of today. It’s a prime opportunity to get to know some of the songs from what might be the best album of 2013 in any style of music.

As in much of Greek music (Kontanis being second-generation Greek-American), the tempos on this album tend to be very tricky. Kontanis’ English lyrics are as serpentine as the music. While many have a smoldering, vengeful anger, Kontanis’ vocals have a low-key confidence and understatement: he lets the lyrics speak for themselves. Most of the acoustic songs set Kontanis’ oud and Megan Gould’s violin out in front of Brian Holtz’s bass and Shane Shanahan’s percussion; the rock stuff gives Kontanis a chance to be a one-man army of stringed instruments. Either way, the interplay between the instruments is luscious, whether it’s genuine teamwork or simply Kontanis’ intricately intertwining multitracks.

The album opens with a lithe, dancing acoustic intro titled Flight of Ikaros and ends with Fall of Ikaros, a metaphorically bristling lament with a long, hypnotic but biting violin solo as its centerpiece. The best song on the album is a brooding string quartet of sorts (a requiem for Kontanis’ father), sung in a richly low, suspenseful, elegaic alto by the ubiquitously brilliant Eva Salina Primack (who has a fantastic solo album of her own just out). The most psychedelic track is Dancing in My Dreams, Kontanis playing swooping, sitar-like lines over droning, dirty Velvets-style guitar distortion and a funereal bass pulse.

The menacingly nocturnal title track is a galloping, syncopated feast of chromatic minor-key guitar. Feel the Night and See You Through to the End both juxtapose carefree verses against edgy, anxious choruses, while the kiss-off anthem Don’t Need You Here works a bittersweet bucolic vibe. Mercy reaches toward a darkly seductive rembetiko ambience, while the viciously sarcastic Heart of Gold mines a psychedelic Greek folk vibe much in the same vein as Magges or Annabouboula. Rage finally reaches fever pitch in the revenge anthem The Climb, lit up by edgy oud/violin harmonies and Kontanis’ murderous lyrics. As stylistically diverse as this album is, Kontanis’  wicked chops on all those instruments connect them with a simmering, wounded angst. It’s one of the most hard-hitting, featlessly intense albums of the year.